Being a lawyer is hard, no matter whether you’re in-house, in a firm, or out on your own. My grandfather said that to be a lawyer is to be a professional worrier, and I think there’s something to that.
There is a weight of expectation that comes with the title, as well as a shouldering of the responsibility of an individual’s or company’s wellbeing. In combination with long hours, made longer by a pandemic, and isolation made more apparent by Zoom.
The simple fact of the matter is that law is tough. But this does not mean that lawyers have to be tough. There is something courageous in finding something challenging and carrying on anyway. However, it is less courageous but much easier to plod along without any consideration as to the difficulty of what you’re doing or the impact it might have on you over time. Lawyers are overrepresented in mental health statistics, with some studies suggesting lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than people in other jobs. The American Bar Association found that 28 percent of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression, with an additional 19 percent of lawyers having symptoms of anxiety, and a further 21 percent having issues with problem drinking.
Those studies were undertaken in 2016 and since then the world has not gotten much easier. We are, at this point, nearly two years into a global pandemic which has forced our offices into our homes, and faced with loftier performance targets seemingly every year.
Given all of this, it is not unreasonable to be feeling under the pump, stressed or downright rotten. And that is okay.
There is a lesson to be learned from our clients, co-workers and companies who come to us when they need help. That lesson is simply that when you’re faced with a circumstance or situation you can’t understand that is negatively impacting you, it is okay to seek help from those who might be able to guide you through the situation.
There are times for walks on the beach, meditation and journaling - all great tools for managing your own wellbeing.
There are also times for seeking professional help, and perhaps taking some time away if necessary - perfectly acceptable behaviors.
We are moving into a space where wellbeing and struggles with mental health are becoming more widely accepted. The shift in focus to work-life balance and wellbeing is perhaps the most important change taking place in the modern workplace. And it is one that lawyers cannot be left behind on, although it is safe to say we have traditionally been slow to adapt.
Law culture to me has always felt a bit like being on board a pirate ship, a wide array of strange characters and personalities drawn together by a camaraderie born out of the difficulty of the job. While raucous and fun from afar, the closer you get the more peglegs, eye patches and wooden teeth you see. These are the costs of not taking that time off you booked because your review is coming up and you want to obliterate your already well-exceeded KPIs. Or working through your lunch breaks and late into the evening in the hope that your company recognizes your immense productivity and value.
There are some schools of thought that people self-select their way into law by being relentless, brilliant perfectionists. I am not sure that is the case. But perhaps it is time that we, as a cohort, turned our productive powers from our work to ourselves and begin to take as much pride in how well we are caring for ourselves as how well we are performing or undertaking our work.
Law is tough and life is unrelenting. If you are ever in doubt or down, take some time out or speak to a professional. As we know, there is no shame in seeking help to navigate a difficult situation. Being from Christchurch (the former earthquake capital of New Zealand), I’m aware that a house is only as good as its foundations. But if those foundations are strong, there is no telling just how much that house can withstand.
If you put quality work into yourself, quality work will follow.